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The negative effects of climate change, such as floods, forest fires, heatwaves, melting ice, rising tides, and droughts, have been observed on a global scale and have intensified over the last few years. The impacts on the environment vary from one region to another, but the Gulf Arab states are particularly at risk.
The Gulf region is especially prone to the increasing frequency of extreme weather, including heatwaves, cyclones, and floods. A recent study revealed that climate change could pose a danger to the hajj because of the expected rise of heat and humidity when the pilgrimage falls in the summer. Oman, with a coast on the Arabian Sea, has been hit by at least four cyclones over the last 12 years alone. Additionally, an unprecedented number of floods have hit the Gulf states, causing severe infrastructure damage, leading to the resignation of Kuwait’s minister of public works in 2018.
To reduce the intensity of the impacts of climate change, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reached a historic landmark agreement in 2015 – the Paris Climate Agreement. The parties to the agreement were required to prepare and communicate their Nationally Determined Contributions for climate action initiatives (in mitigation and adaptation) aimed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and more ambitiously to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since then, the parties to the Paris Agreement have met four times to make it fully operational. The 25th Conference of Parties, held in Madrid in December, was the final conference before the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement comes into effect. Starting in 2020, parties to the agreement are required to strengthen their climate action ambitions and will be subject to an assessment every five years.
All of the Gulf Arab states have signed and ratified the Paris Climate Agreement and have participated in the annual Conference of Parties meetings. Further, the Gulf states have prepared and communicated their Nationally Determined Contributions and must translate these ambitions into action on the ground and strengthen their climate adaptation and mitigation actions every five years. All of the Gulf states have made progress in addressing climate change, but by the end of 2019, only the UAE and Oman had established national climate action plans.
Status of Climate Action
In 2017, the UAE released the National Climate Action Plan of the United Arab Emirates (2017-2050) with detailed climate mitigation and adaptation goals. In fact, in 2015, the UAE had the advantage of its early adoption of the UAE Green Agenda 2015-2030, as an implementation framework for the UAE Green Growth Strategy. The strategy prioritizes a competitive knowledge economy, social development and quality of life, a sustainable environment and natural resources, clean energy and climate action, and the sustainable use of resources as strategic objectives. The UAE aims to implement the climate priorities listed in its National Climate Action Plan alongside the existing National Green Growth Strategy under the UAE Green Agenda. The UAE Council on Climate Change and Environment – established in 2016 – is the committee responsible for both overseeing the implementation of the Green Agenda and advancing partnerships across ministries and local authorities with the private sector and academia. The UAE’s proactive engagement in climate action has indeed enabled the country’s progress in many climate action areas, including its advanced adoption of renewable energy from the installed capacity of 137 megawatts in 2014 to 589 megawatts in 2018.
After it was hit in 2007 by the devastating cyclone Guno, Oman was the first Gulf state to establish a dedicated ministry for climate and environment – the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs. Like the UAE, Oman established a national strategy in 2019 to mitigate climate change. Championed by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, a National Committee for Climate Change – composed of representatives from different ministries – was established to oversee the preparation and implementation of Oman’s national climate strategy. Oman’s most advanced climate action has been its adaptation to extreme weather; Oman has one of the most advanced early warning systems to aid weather forecasting and early evacuations ahead of cyclones. Additionally, in 2016, Oman passed a ministerial decision regarding regulations for the management of climate affairs, which requires “greenhouse gas emitting projects” to obtain a climate affairs permit. The decision requires projects to report their greenhouse gas emissions annually, use energy efficient technologies, and implement climate adaptation measures, among other requirements.
In comparison, Saudi Arabia has some of the most ambitious climate action initiatives but has yet to develop a national climate plan or strategy to enable their implementation. For instance, in its Nationally Determined Contribution, the kingdom stated its aim to integrate climate action into its Vision 2030 economic diversification efforts in pursuit of climate and economic co-benefits. These include increasing renewable energy use in electricity generation to 3.45 gigawatts by 2020 and 9.5 gigawatts by 2023. These targets have been scaled back from the original goal of sourcing 54 gigawatts of electricity from renewables by 2023. The current installed capacity of renewables in Saudi Arabia is 442 megawatts. Without a climate action plan or strategy, Saudi Arabia will not be able to meet its ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution targets, including the 3.45 gigawatt renewable energy goal. Yet, the kingdom has implemented climate-related initiatives, such as energy efficiency programs, and plans to develop a circular carbon economy. With around 80 programs, Saudi Arabia has significantly advanced the energy efficiency of its largest energy consumers, namely buildings, industry, and transportation, leading to an unprecedented 2.7% decline in the kingdom’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, compared to 2017. If done properly, carbon capture and storage technology would not only maintain oil production and consumption and cut carbon emissions, but would enable the transformation of captured carbon into useful products, such as methanol, urea (for use as fertilizer), and polymers (for use as durable products in buildings or cars), which would unlock many environmental and economic opportunities.
Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar also have climate-related initiatives like energy efficiency and renewable energy targets and projects. In 2007, Bahrain established a Joint National Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the Supreme Council for Environment, to oversee climate issues, including mitigation and adaptation measures. While useful, the committee’s climate action has been dominated by preparing and communicating reports to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change rather than implementing domestic climate action. Similarly, apart from meeting international climate commitments and its national target of sourcing 15% of energy from renewables, Kuwait’s domestic climate action has been limited. Qatar is preparing a climate change strategy focused on urban planning and development. However, none of these states have established a comprehensive national climate strategy to enable the implementation of their Nationally Determined Contribution climate ambitions, which could lead to a lack of coordination on climate-related efforts.
What to Expect Post-2020
Since the December Conference of Parties was the last meeting before the Paris Agreement comes into effect in 2020, all the Nationally Determined Contributions will now require enhancement and become subject to collective assessment to track progress toward the agreement’s goals. The Climate Action Tracker, which has already provided assessments of select countries, found that the Nationally Determined Contribution pledges of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are insufficient to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s ambitions of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Despite progressive climate pledges and evolving institutional architecture, Gulf climate action faces significant impediments. These include the availability of essential climate-related data to inform policymaking and limited knowledge and awareness of climate change impacts and the potential economic, social, and environmental advantages of climate action both at the government and end-user levels. Further, the effects of climate change are likely to be felt across the different economic sectors, requiring cross-sectoral policy responses. In late 2019, the Gulf states still viewed climate action as the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Environment or Ministry of Energy. All of the Gulf Arab states need to shift their institutional arrangements from silo approaches to more coordinated climate action across economic sectors and government entities. Further, without governmental intervention, the Gulf states face significant shortfalls in the human capacity needed to advance climate-related research and prepare and implement climate-related policies.
Without such immediate intervention to address the barriers that delay advanced climate action, the Gulf Arab states will lag in aligning their climate action with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Just as concerning, they will lack the ability to address the more immediate physical impacts of climate change at the domestic level, where it impacts their citizens directly.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a research associate at KAPSARC, and the coordinator of the T20 Climate and Environment Task Force.
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